Warren William Under the Stars, Part 7: The Case of the Howling Dog
August 23, 2012 Leave a comment
THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934) *** Dir: Alan Crosland
Starring: Warren William, Mary Astor, Allen Jenkins, Helen Trenholme
Mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner once claimed that after he first saw Warren William on screen as his famous creation, the iconic lawyer / detective Perry Mason, he tailored the character in his highly successful novels to William’s image in the movies. If this story is more than just the invention of a studio publicity drudge, Gardner’s interest would primarily rest on the shoulders of Mason inaugural appearance on film, 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog. Of the four films mounted with William as the clever attorney, it is in Howling Dog that he most closely resembles the Mason of Gardner’s early novels: sober, meticulous, professional, and willing to step just outside the law to protect his client.
When Warner Brothers decided to commit to Gardner’s hero in 1934, they lavished some money ($10,000-$25,000 per novel) and studio resources on the series. In addition to Warren William, fresh from his turn as gumshoe Philo Vance, they also assigned a streaking Bette Davis to the project. Having previously teamed Davis and William three times (including a publicity short for the General Electric Corporation), the duo seemed a natural, but Davis found the part beneath her, and the thankless role was instead visited on Mary Astor. Direction was assigned to Alan Crosland, the long time craftsman who had ushered in the sound era with The Jazz Singer (1927), and a solid cast of Warner’s contractees was assembled including Grant Mitchell, Allen Jenkins and Addison Richards.
The plot of any given Mason story is largely irrelevant; they are so formulaic that they have been compared to Japanese Noh drama in their rigid structure. In The Case of the Howling Dog there are three murders and some questions about the legality of a will; Mason’s client (Astor) is accused of the murders, and the full forces of his vast organization are brought to bear to acquit her. From there you might have an image of what to expect, but to its great credit, Howling Dog eschews many of the standard mystery / detective clichés so prevalent in cinema at the time. Director Crosland and writer Ben Markson created a slick, stylish hybrid of legal procedural, courtroom drama and whodunit that feels more realistic – if not more plausible – than most of its contemporary kind. Warren William, embarking here on a career transition – from pre-Code cad to detective / mystery character actor – has one of his best mainstream roles, and Crosland gets a restrained, thoughtful portrayal from him. In the succeeding films Mason will undergo character changes in order to mitigate the cut-and-paste plot elements – at various stages he is portrayed as a boozy opportunist, a devil-may-care bon-vivant and a finicky gourmand – but here the lawyer projects supreme capability and professionalism. From Philo Vance to Mason and through the Lone Wolf, this is a basic archetype that Warren will repeat with variations for the rest of his career.
For mystery lovers, The Case of the Howling Dog will be a welcome diversion: entertaining, direct and honest. Warren William fans may prefer his later incarnations as Mason, where comedy, romance and larceny often hold sway over story. Either way, it is a pleasure to watch him work.
The Case of the Howling Dog will be broadcast on TCM at 1:15 AM (EST) August 30th, 2012. (It will actually appear at the end of TCM’s August 30th programming day, the morning of August 31st)